Labours’ Representative Weighs Up New Bill

A new labour bill introduced by the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs (MoLSA) revised 53 articles in the labour proclamation which was last amended in 2008. But the envisioned revisions have not been without their controversies, with the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) deeming 18 of the amendments unfair to employees. CETU, headed by Kassahun Follo, in its general assembly, has warned that they would be forced to call a strike if these specific points remain unaddressed. The Union stresses that labour laws should equally favour the employee and employer, and the bill would not only hurt labourers but also hamper investment. SAMSON BERHANE, FORTUNE'S EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, sat down with Kassahun to discuss the possible way forward

Fortune: Do you think the labour law should side only with the employee given its history?

Kassahun Folle: At the time when the idea of labour rights emerged in Ethiopia, especially during the regime of the military government, there was an approach to support the labourers with legal frameworks. Back then, there were no private investors like today. The government was the only employer. Now, everything has changed, both the citizens and foreigners are involved in the process.

I believe protecting both employers and labourers is vital. We give attention to protect the human and democratic rights of the workers such as the right to negotiate, freedom of association, physical security and health, while the employers should be able to get better outputs from the workforce. Thus, the repeal should be balanced for both the sides.

What was the role of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) in the amendment of the labour law?

Tripartite negotiations between the advisory board, which comprised of the employee, the employer and the representatives of the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs (MoLSA), were concluded two years ago. During the same period, the board completed its deliberations and submitted the draft to the Council of Ministers. But the Council returned it for further discussion, reasoning that all the concerned bodies didn’t participate in the draft.

Then again, the Ministry sent us the bill after making a significant amendment. The changes were shocking, unexpected and contrary to our agreement made two years back. Hence, we proposed the alteration of 16 articles and the reversal of 18 amended articles.

Although they had given us the chance to review the draft, they were unwilling to accept the proposed changes. Surprisingly, after claiming that the process took much longer than expected, the Ministry forwarded the bill to the council. Our Union did not oppose the decision, but we demanded our concerns to be presented to the council.

The law empowers the board only to consult the amendments while it gives the Ministry complete discretion to consider or reject our proposal. Taking this into account, we called for a discussion again and decided to present our concerns in a letter to every member of the council. None of the ministries responded to our queries, except the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, which raised its concerns on one of the articles regarding the negotiation between employers and employees.

we have to abide by international standards.  We don't just draft some of the rules. Everything has a reason. When we think about investment, we have to think about the people also. We have to grow together.

How did you conclude that the law was enacted in favour of the employer?

The provisions did not go in line with the country’s context and overlooked the existing situation of the country’s workforce. They are not reasonable at all. For instance, if an employee is late for more than a day in a month, he/she will be fired without notice.

I don’t encourage tardiness in work. But, the law is unattainable bearing in mind the existing substandard transport facilities in the country. The chance of losing a job is highly likely even in tight situations.

The existing law states that if someone is repeatedly absent from work, termination without notice will follow. The limit of absence will be set collectively by the workers and the employer upon agreement.

A court case will be your final option. The court will then decide based on the evidence provided. During litigation, the worker will run out of resources because the employment contract has already been terminated.

In Ethiopia, most employers complain that the work culture is poor. Don’t you think this can be a remedy for such work habits?

No doubt, work culture is an issue we have to deal with. But, this law is open to interpretation. The convincing grounds for termination are not stated in detail in the article.

In the case of industries, the frequency of absence is not a big concern. It is rather the attitude of the workers that make productivity cumbersome. MoLSA is the responsible body for improving the behaviour of such employees. Although, I doubt that the Ministry is doing its job properly there.

There needs to be no discussion with the employers for a strike to take place, in any place in the world. As it is the employees that strike, the decision is solely theirs. As long as the rules are followed, the employee can strike at any time.

About 53 articles are amended in the existing proclamation mainly in the aspects of union formation, probation period and downsizing the workforce, contract termination, compensation, annual leave and working overtime. Most of them are intended to attract investment and raise productivity. Do you think this is a right move?

We should attract investment while respecting human rights. We can develop our economy like China did- by denying the fundamental rights of humanity to a person. I don’t know if labourers are willing to work in such conditions. Of course, many countries fail to develop with such laws.

I believe that the previous law of the country already exceeds expectations in attracting foreign investors.

Will the investors from various industrial zones and parks be attracted had the previous law been an obstacle? Every foreign investor has criteria to fulfil before investing in a country. Why don’t we ask the international investors how they sell their products? Their customers enquire what the companies’ human right protection looks like. If we give any negative information about the violation of human rights, they refuse to purchase the product. So, the damage is mutual. I believe our comments on the bill will benefit employers, employees and the economy as a whole.

The ministry altered the draft by including the practices of Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore, Bangladesh and Indonesia, identifying the similarities to the labour market and economic priority of Ethiopia. So, where is the fault in learning from them?

I believe only Vietnam and Bangladesh are benchmarked in the draft where many investors are fleeing from. They did not even thoroughly explain how they selected these countries that are known for violating labourers’ rights and an unstable industry. If we see Vietnam, it tops the list for infringing the rights of labourers globally next to China.

And, in Bangladesh, there is a severe labour rights’ abuse. Because of these, the industry is not healthy. It is not a country like ours, where ten days are given to employers to address the issue. If you want to strike, you can right away. Because of these most of them are leaving these countries. Do we want this to happen here?

Therefore, we have to abide by international standards.  We don’t just draft some of the rules. Everything has a reason. When we think about investment, we have to think about the people also. We have to grow together.

The probation period will be extended to 90 working days, and a notice of contract termination is also raised to three months from a month. If we closely assess the existing probation period closely, there is a difficulty in finding skilled labour in Ethiopia. Training an employee is mandatory, and there must also be an evaluation. Do you think this entire process can be concluded in 45 days?  Employers say this may create a distorted confidence on the employer when hiring unskilled employees. And, the employer will be forced to assign an employee in whom he does not have full confidence. This creates an unhealthy relationship between them. What is your say?

Ninety working days is almost four months. Isn’t 45 days enough to evaluate an accountant or a lawyer? We have been doing this in the past, and there was no problem. Most of the times the new industrial parks are mentioned to justify this specific article.

They say they need more time because they do not get trained workforce in the market. The number of training days must be assessed first to decide whether 45 days are enough or not. We have seen in the Hawassa Industrial Park where workers are recruited and trained simultaneously. We have visited their training centre. Employees are assigned the job after 30 days of training.

No one is perfect at the time of recruitment. Moreover, there is on the job training. It must be known that on the job training must not be given during the probation period. It is given to a recruited worker to make him/her more productive. It is obvious that the worker is trained in the assigned position. If we are talking about perfection, it is not achievable even after 90 days.

In the same token, if an employee wants to leave a company, he has to give four months of notice to his employer. We then asked what job or work this amendment applies to. We have been expecting highly paid jobs. But, unfortunately, they refer to employees in the manufacturing sector. Look, the draft grants the employer a right to fire a labourer who is late for two days. Again, the employee must give three months and 28 days notice to quit the job.

If he fails to do so, he has to either abandon the salary for those months or give up his benefits. Is this what we call justice?  We have more concerns.

MoLSA is authorised to oversee the recruitment process of employees operating inside industrial parks, according to the draft. But, there are concerns that the Ministry has an issue of capacity to reach all the parks that are operational and in the pipeline.

The Ministry oversees the job inspection services comprising of collective agreement negotiation, salary increment, benefits and job security, as the bill entails. Previously, offices of regional state governments were handling these. The Ministry does not have the potential to create awareness. Now, adding to the new amendment, the service will be inaccessible. We are not raising this point in the same wavelength as our other concerns. We will not go out on the streets for this. It is a recommended in the interest of the worker. We will not interfere in the federal structure of the country.

The new bill put a penalty of 40, 000 Br on the employer if the worker is exposed to an occupational accident and the employer is responsible for it. Previously it was only around 1200 Br. Yet, you are asking for more. You have even mentioned a penalty up to detention. Can your concern not be addressed in the criminal code? What is the notion of its inclusion in the labour law?

Labour law is a special proclamation by itself. The penalty put in this specific article is not a conclusive one.  Maybe 40, 000 Br is enough. But the amount doesn’t take the size of the companies into consideration. When a big business dissolves the labour union repeatedly and pays the penalty, nothing can deter the company from its unlawful acts. Let me give you another example. There is one company where a worker on average suffers accidents causing fatal injuries weekly. Paying 40, 000 Br every time an accident occurs is easy for such companies. We need to break this cycle. As long as the law is conclusive in this stance, we don’t have a problem whether it is in the labour law or criminal code.

Neither the existing nor the draft proclamation applies to civil servants. But on a separate civil servant’s labour bill, it has been said that public servants cannot form labour unions. The Union does not accept this, but do you even have the mandate to argue in their defence even if they are not a member.

When the Union was formed as a democratic institution, we fought for our rights, and likewise, the rights of others. Any person would fight for the institution of basic human rights or at least will request it. We look at this from a couple of angles. We are a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and attend the annual meetings. There is Convention 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise), and according to our agreements, we must execute every accord. The country’s Constitution has put forward that all international agreements Ethiopia abides by are part of the country’s laws. The country enacted Convention 1987 almost half a century ago.

Nonetheless, to this day, public servants have no unions. When will they be allowed to organise? Are we to wait for the next generation to pass through the same structure? It is part of an international agreement the country has signed. How is it that we do not have the mandate?

The fact that the right to organise is an inalienable human right is not just something the ILO has accepted but also the United Nations (UN). This right is not a political right, but a human one.

Secondly, a committee from the ILO had come to Ethiopia and held discussions on why public servants were not allowed to form unions. For eight years, the government had to defend itself after ILO charged the country for the very same reason.

And the Union is privy to these meetings. So where is the excuse that we cannot raise public servants’ rights? And, it is not clear why the Constitution is disregarded.

If the Constitution gives them the right, they should form unions. We should learn from Kenya, Sudan, Uganda or other African countries? Their public servants have unions.

Ethiopia along with Eritrea, Djibouti or Zimbabwe has not allowed such unions to form.

One of the Union’s proposals was instituting a minimum wage, which has not garnered acceptance. Given that there are 16.5 million people currently unemployed in Ethiopia, would enforcing a minimum wage not further discourage employers from hiring more?

How has the lack of a minimum wage affected the 16.5 million unemployed? That is my question.

The improvements may not be significant, but five years ago the unemployment rate used to be 20.5pc, according to the Central Statistical Agency (CSA). Since a minimum wage has never been instituted in the country’s history, it is hard to claim that the reduction is a product of it. But what employers claim is that, if there is a minimum wage, they would be forced to cut staff.

First of all, foreign investors do not come to Ethiopia with the intention of hiring a lot of people and throwing money around. They come looking for opportunities and to make a profit. They are not non-profit organisations. Because there is no minimum wage now, enterprises would not hire more than their capacity. Employers do not hire because the unemployment rate is high, but to get someone to carry out certain duties.

The unemployment rate is a way of distorting the issue. If today the wage dropped from 1,500 Br to 500 Br, would they hire more people? It would not make sense for the employers to put two or three people in a post just because they could afford it. They have business plans, and they calculate how many people can do a specific job, how much it costs and what types of machines are needed before they even make the trip to Ethiopia.

Secondly, we are not asking for a blanket amount for every sector. All we are asking for is a minimum wage compatible with each sector. For instance, the hotel, textile and the construction industry are not the same. So, they can have a separate, national minimum wage. Taking this into consideration, the labour law should incorporate the minimum wage which should be enacted according to each sector. The Union is not asking for a minimum wage of 1000 Br or 2000 Br across the board right away.

If a person has a job but is still poor, then what is the point? Jobs exist so that that person could afford a meal.

From the 53 amendments that are a part of the new labour bill, you have only pointed out 18 for debate. Does it mean you agree with the rest?

If we have not pointed them out, then it must mean that we have accepted them.

Lastly, the Union has said that if the 18 points raised are not addressed, a peaceful demonstration would be called, and could even lead to a strike. Will it not create a rift between employees and their employers?

We are not looking to protest if the points are not addressed but a strike. It would not be like the one during the Industrial Revolution where people would break machines and destroy factories. In this era, that type of strike does not exist. Everyone has the right not to work, according to the constitution. But for the problems that may follow if a strike is called, it is hard to know based on the current conditions. If it reaches that stage, how it would be carried out, how the peaceful demonstration would be held, in what manner would the strike occur will be worked out.

But has the Union tried discussing the issue with employers, or pass their queries to the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs (MoLSA)?

There needs to be no discussion with the employers for a strike to take place, in any place in the world. As it is the employees that strike, the decision is solely theirs. As long as the rules are followed, the employee can strike at any time.

We have discussed the platforms where employers and government representatives were present. We do not inform them we would strike unless they address our concerns. We only ask them to review our points and accept them. The set goals would hurt the industry sector, and we presented other countries’ experiences.

Like I mentioned earlier, we had successfully negotiated with the Ethiopian Employers Federation (EEF) and representatives of the government two years ago. Why did they not raise these points then? Neither of them mentioned that the amendments had to be made. I do not know what changed since then, and why they believed the labour law was unfair to employers, to begin with. As far as I know, the amendments were initiated by the Ministry itself.

The employers, if there were issues they wanted to discuss, should have come to us through the Federation during the negotiations. And if they have another organisation, then they should have informed us about it.

Tripartite discussions are common in any country. This amendment affects even employees that are not part of unions and, likewise, employers that are not members of the Federation. We held the discussions and have sent our points to the Ministry separately. We have already shown that we cannot come to common terms anymore. What is the point of going there again?

What is the response after forwarding your concerns and complaints to the office of the Prime Minister, MoLSA and nine regional state administrations?

The government responded to have an additional discussion on our issues. They have already notified us of the people assigned to handle the issues. Even though I cannot specify the exact date of the discussion, it will be held in a week’s time.



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